On a cold, clear Friday morning in March, Jason Rae opened his e-mail and found a Google news alert announcing his death.

“What?” he said to the screen. “Um, I appear to still be breathing.” He then discovered that his Wikipedia profile had been amended to reflect his recent demise (of a suspected drug overdose), at which point he learned that he had also been buried. What’s going on here? he thought.

Turned out it was a different Jason Rae—the husband of British soul singer Corinne Bailey Rae. This Jason Rae was very much alive, sitting in front of a computer monitor in the Marquette University student-government offices in Milwaukee. Maybe it seems strange that a college junior would have a Google news alert on himself. But he has it for good reason. At 21, this Jason Rae is the youngest superdelegate in the country.

Barely 14 years old when George W. Bush took office, Rae—who wears oval glasses, has meticulously cropped hair, and possesses a voice like a Sunday-school teacher’s—is now one of the roughly 800 unpledged delegates who will crown a nominee this summer. During the white-knuckle drama of the Democratic primaries last winter, while his classmates were beer-bonging and cramming for sociology exams, Rae was fielding phone calls from Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, and John Kerry, having powwows with Hillary Clinton and with Barack Obama, and eating breakfast with Chelsea Clinton—all of them hoping to influence his endorsement. No one—not even Rae—could have predicted how tight the race would be, or how quickly the term superdelegate would enter the American lexicon. There’s an expression Rae uses when he’s talking about things that surprise him—like getting a phone call from Al Sharpton one night in 2005 when he was working on his high-school yearbook. “I was totally blown aback!” he says.

He’s been saying that a lot lately.

Born and raised in the town of Rice Lake (population 8,312), in northwestern Wisconsin, Jason Rae beat out a former state legislator and the president of a fireman’s union for his seat on the Democratic National Committee (DNC) at the age of 17. It’s a remarkable achievement, especially considering his lack of pedigree. Rae wasn’t the scion of a local political dynasty. He was just a precocious kid with a passion for government.

“My family was much more interested in the Green Bay Packers than they were in politics,” he says. Rae’s dad works as a supervisor in a tool-and-dye factory, and his mom runs the office of a medical clinic. For all his political activism, Rae still doesn’t know which party his parents favor. But he does remember reminding his parents to vote for Bill Clinton one day as they were leaving him with the babysitter. He was 5. By the time he was a high-school freshman, he was riding his blue Huffy six-speed to local Democratic Party meetings, where he was charged with knocking on doors and cold-calling voters. His next step was D.C.: In 2002 Rae found out about a program open to high-school juniors and, for the fall 2003 semester, went to work under Wisconsin Democratic senator Herb Kohl on Capitol Hill.